Police Psychology | Can’t Take My Mind Off of You
Police psychology deals with a lot of obsession. Police stress can also be the result of obsession. I am big on obsession (can’t you tell?). I see obsession everywhere (anger, depression, love, hate, writing a blog). In fact, you could say I am obsessed with obsession. Researchers have said that we have 60,000 thoughts a day (and 90% are the same thoughts we had the day before), and obsessive people have even more than that. In fact, obsessives can have as many as 90,000 or 120,000 thoughts in one day. I don’t know how they count thoughts in a day, but those are the numbers they come up with. This can be both a gift and a curse. You do get a lot done, if the obsessiveness doesn’t drive you crazy.
Obsession is not limited to people who have been diagnosed or labeled with this behavior—we all experience obsessions. Whether you are obsessed with a certain song, a specific food, a store, a TV show, or even a person you care about, we all know the feeling of not being able to get something out of our head. I remember a phase my daughter went through a few years ago where she sang “The wheels on the bus go round and round” at the top of her lungs. Every day. Every minute of every day, a wheel on that damn bus! This was bad enough, but it got to the point that I found myself humming this tune even when I wasn’t with her, like while I was brushing my teeth, or in the middle of a session with one of my clients (oops, I’m not supposed to reveal that). We will all continue to have obsessions as we encounter different things in life. Some things just have a way of sticking with you (if you have a female child like me, you’re probably thinking of “Let it Go” from Frozen—I’m still trying to get that out of my head).
The Biology of Obsession
Psychologists in fields as varied as clinical and police psychology understand that different sections of the brain control obsessions. The basal ganglia is one section of the brain that is thought to be responsible for obsessive thoughts. Other areas that play a role are structures known as the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) the thalamus and the anterior cingulate gyrus. These fancy terms are just here to let you know that obsession is not just a behavior, it is biological too; it is built and organized inside our brains. It’s not so important for you to know the names of these parts, but it is important for you to know that these same brain sections are activated in people who are experiencing anxiety and often depression. They can’t get the one thought that is making them miserable out of their head. PTSD is also heavily related to obsession. So is police stress.
When someone is obsessed with something, they can be dysfunctional—sometimes they can’t focus on more important things, sometimes they can’t get the object of their obsession out of their head. They are, in a sense, debilitated, dependent on something else to function normally. It can also be frightening because you can feel like you don’t have control over your thoughts. And sometimes obsessions can be just plain annoying—I mean do you really want to be singing “The wheels on the bus” as you enter an important business meeting or while you are kissing your spouse?
The most important thing you can do for any obsessions you are experiencing is for you to regain control of your thoughts. Remember, focused obsession has been part of the formula for some of the world’s greatest accomplishments. When I write a book, I get obsessed, I spend a week with the windows covered, the doors locked, no sense of time, just pure obsession, and it works. If unfocused, you may end up staying up all night thinking about the person, song, celebrity, show, etc…which can have a tremendous detriment on your sleep and productivity throughout the day. So if taking back control over thoughts is how to avoid getting stuck in an obsession, how can we do this in practice?
Obsessions can prevent you from movement, they can bog you down in thoughts or feelings that make you feel like you don’t have control over yourself anymore. Use these tips to fight back against these thoughts and regain control over your mind.
- Thought stopping. The first trick you can do to break any obsession you have is to implement different techniques that stop your mind from wandering to the object/person. One way that I find particularly easy and useful is the rubber band trick. Wrap a rubber band around your wrist and anytime you realize your thoughts are heading toward the object of obsession, you snap the elastic on your wrist. This results in two things: one, chances are that will distract you enough that you will stop thinking about whatever you were going to think about. Two, slowly you will start associating the obsessive thoughts with the stupid little pain of the rubber band slapped against your wrist. This is called classical conditioning, and it works very well. I use it all the time in police psychology, and it certainly seems to help my clients dealing with police stress. There are many other ways you can implement thought-stopping techniques. Other examples include having an alarm beep every few minutes and when the alarm beeps you have to stop and think about what you are currently thinking about (something called metacognition), and make sure your thoughts are staying away from your obsession. You may want to reward yourself if you are able to go a certain amount of time without thinking about it too (this is operant conditioning-covering all bases today).
- Organizing the Obsession. Another strategy you can use in order to avoid getting stuck in your obsession is to organize the obsession. Say to yourself, “This is the order in which I will do things. First, let’s focus on step A.” Create order and structure in your day in such a way that you leave very little room for obsessive thoughts to impede. You can also organize the thoughts in your head. There is a concept in memory called the Method of Loci, or the “memory palace.” This technique explores the idea that we can visualize a room where we can “put” different thoughts we have. For example, “put” all thoughts related to work on the top shelf in the room you visualize. “Put” all thoughts related to your relationships in the bottom desk drawer in the room you visualize. This technique is very common among students who need to memorize a lot of information for exams, but it can be used to organize obsessive thoughts too. In relationships, I make people do a list of “forgets,” things you have to forget to stay married. Same principle, different application. By making lists you are also using the obsession to an advantage instead of a detriment.
- Have a go-to fantasy. Whenever you feel like your mind is wandering to your object of obsession, immediately replace is with a go-to fantasy. For example, become the quarterback at for the Notre Dame football team, or the wing in the world cup, and you’re about to win the game for the whole team. Other fantasies can be that you’re lying on the beach in Hawaii, or at a wine tasting in Italy. Pick a fantasy of your own—one that has some particular meaning or significance to you—and use that as a place to “go to” whenever you want to avoid thinking about the object of your obsession.
Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP
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